In which our story truly kicks off.
On this dreary Wednesday morning, if you walk down a London backstreet, away from the main drags and the tourist traps, you might find an odd sight.
A small, red-brick building is tucked away round a corner. Frankly, it’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find in a bustling city at all; it has a ye-olde swinging sign attached to the wall and everything. It isn’t in the guidebooks – you’re more likely to end up there because some bloke in a dimly-lit pub offered you a recommendation. It looks like it’s been transplanted from a small village where the crime rate is less than zero and it wins Britain in Bloom every year. Well, except for the graffiti next to the front windows.
The graffiti which is being furiously scrubbed at by a lanky, blond, waistcoated bookseller, one who’s muttering curses under his breath.
Adrian has been attempting to remove the words Call Stacey for a good time for several minutes now. He has absolutely no idea why this artist has foregone their usual venue of public toilets for a small, slightly quaint bookshop exterior, but that’s not his concern; removing the eyesore is. Who on earth is Stacey, anyway? And why did the graffitier seem to think that using mustard yellow was a good idea? And why haven’t they at least had the sense to provide a phone number?
“Adrian!” The shout’s accompanied by the sound of rapid footsteps – someone is evidently walking rather quickly towards him.
He exhales a sigh, debating with himself whether or not to turn round. He’ll have to eventually, but if he doesn’t, he can maybe spend two more minutes pretending this isn’t happening. He knows all too well what this conversation is going to be about.
Alright. He turns. “Paul,” he says, plastering a grin onto his face. He likely oozes smarm. Good; it’s intentional.
Paul is making surprisingly fast progress, considering his short legs – he’s five-six, and that’s on a good day – and his face is not quite thunderous, but very close. “What the hell is this?” He doesn’t raise his voice; it becomes lower, quieter with his fury. Normally it’s a reason they get on. People who yell at the slightest provocation are unfortunately distracting, and they tend to make Adrian twitchy.
Adrian, too, wonders what the hell “this” is, until he sees Paul reach into a pocket and pull out a sheet of paper. It is undeniably an invoice – and Adrian is certain which one it will be. Paul unfolds it and waves it at him, the bangle on his wrist clinking with the movement.
“It’s…” Adrian hesitates, wondering if there’s some way he can wriggle out of this. “You know, it looks very much like an invoice.”
Paul will probably go easy on him; they’ve been friends for years. It’s why they bought the bookshop together in the first place. Then again, there’s something in his eyes that’s far worse than anger: a resounding disappointment, as if he’s been expecting something like this from the start.
Which is, frankly, bloody unfair. Adrian’s never invested money for the bookshop in anything without asking Paul. After all, they’re meant to be partners in this project, aren’t they?
“What the hell is this book?” Paul waves the invoice at him again, and Adrian remembers that that wasn’t clearly specified; it’s just down as a “vintage accounts book” or somesuch. And why is it so expensive?”
Adrian doesn’t know. Adrian doesn’t actually know what the book is, which puts rather a dampener on any attempt to estimate its value. “It’s… I had a buyer,” he protests.
“They were willing to pay well. They’ll pay more than I did, certainly.”
Paul pauses, and Adrian can see him rethinking the rant he was about to embark upon. “Really? And you can guarantee that?”
Adrian thinks fast, and then he lies, “Yes. They left their details.”
Paul exhales in visible relief. “Thank God. Y’know, at this rate, running this place’ll be enough to drive me to the bottle.”
With a crooked grin, Adrian says, “Hmm, I dunno. Can Sikhs drink?”
Paul – the Paul who, no matter what the holy book says, will inevitably be heading to the pub for a swift half at lunchtime – gives him a look that speaks volumes. “Give me that,” he snaps, grabbing the cloth and scrubbing at the wall.
Adrian watches him, biting down a sigh.The truth about this whole mess is a little more complicated. He can hardly say, The angel made me do it.
This was how it happened: the heavens opened, the rain that had been precipitous finally arrived, and on a miserably wet Tuesday night, so did the angel.
It was well beyond closing – in fact, now Adrian thinks about it, he realises that it had to have been about eleven, far too late for any customers – when it happened. He was in the back room. The shop was dark, and the only sounds were the buzzing from his laptop, the tapping of the rain and the scratching of pen on paper. He knew he needed to do the accounts, but he was procrastinating instead. Well, Adrian was permanently in a state of procrastination, now he thought about it – perhaps if he’d actually got round to anything, the whole Cambridge debacle wouldn’t have happened.
The bell above the door rang. Someone, long after closing, had just walked through the door.
Adrian was sure the door had been locked. Hadn’t it? He frowned, trying to remember, perhaps hoping that if he didn’t look up from the accounts, he would just be imagining the sound – the sound of steady footsteps making their way to his desk.
They were utterly unhurried. In actuality, that was what bothered him. They were neither rapid nor heavy; he couldn’t read any sort of intent in them. Someone had quietly, with no apparent force, opened a locked door and was now strolling casually towards him. He tensed further with each of those disembodied steps.
“Do you buy books?”
He glanced up, unable to wipe the surprise from his face. It certainly wasn’t what he’d expected. No preamble, no explanation, just… that.
At the other side of the desk stood a tall, slim black woman. Upon seeing her, the first word that came to Adrian’s mind, was, strangely, precise. Her hair was immaculately coiffed, styled into waves that reached her shoulders, and Adrian couldn’t help but notice that her suit was perfect. It was charcoal grey, a proper, old-fashioned three piece. Clinging and tapering in all the most flattering places, it flowed slightly, subtly as she moved. In an utterly understated way, it simply screamed expensive tailoring. Her posture was that of a queen, straight-backed and strong. She watched him with shrewd, dark eyes that were large in her face, long-lashed and somehow arresting. Adrian wanted to shrink from them – that, or stop and stare; he’d always assumed that the descriptor piercing was an embarrassing romance novel cliche, but he was unable to find another word that’d be nearly as suitable. Her cheekbones were razors in the half-light of the empty shop.
There was just something about her. Perhaps it was the certainty in the way she looked at him: there was no anger, nothing to prove, in it; she regarded him as though her questions were already answered, as though it would be only a second’s work to dispose of him if he proved himself to be an obstacle. Whatever it was, it made her imposing, and Adrian suspected that it was effortless – something she was, rather than something she did.
“Hello,” she added – rather belatedly, in Adrian’s opinion. Her voice didn’t seem to match the rest of her, then you looked at her again, and suddenly it did. It was distinctly cockney, and it seemed like the sort of voice that sounded best either telling a dirty joke or when it was faintly exasperated.
“Uh… hello.” He hesitated. “It depends. We do special orders, if there’s a book you’d like to request…” He wondered why he was attempting to do business with a scarily well-dressed intruder. “Wait. Why should I – ? It’s the middle of the night!”
“It’s an urgent request.” She lifted a sharp chin and stared him down. Ah – now she was putting effort into intimidating him. Well, a stubborn part of him insisted, he was at least going to make her work for it.
“And who’s making it?” he snapped, standing. The scrape of the chair was too loud in the near-silence. “Why the hell shouldn’t I just call the police?”
“I would rather you didn’t make this difficult.”
He scoffed. “You break into my shop and you want me to make things easy for you? Sod it, I’m calling the police.” His phone was on his desk, and he reached for it –
Something in her eyes burned, and her voice… resonated. He felt it in his bones. It tingled through his spine, weakened every muscle in his body. All the hairs on the back of his neck rose. It pushed him to bow his head, to try and comply on shaking legs. Never mind sitting down – it made him want to kneel.
He sat, slumping into his chair with a thump, and he stared at her. She was nothing human. He knew that now, even if he hadn’t before, and he watched her with new wariness.
She took the seat opposite his, crossing one long, elegant leg over the other. “Now. Will you listen to me?”
“What are you?”
She sighed. “Your kind often call us angels.”
He gaped at her, words fleeing from him. He knew he must look like a particularly gormless goldfish, his mouth opening and closing, opening and closing, but he couldn’t… His hand flew to his watch. He couldn’t help wondering if there was some truth to the rumours; if, as some said, people like him really could summon things onto this plane. Perhaps this was in some way his fault. It would surprise him: he could maybe, if he were on a busy high street and waved his arms about a bit, summon a taxi, but that was all.
Jesus, sometimes he really hated being a Scholar.
Her eyes moved with the motion, though she didn’t turn her head. “You presume too much,” she said, after a moment. “You couldn’t even look at us in our true forms without being killed by the knowledge – quite why you think you could command us…” She shook her head, and Adrian got the sense she’d barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes.
Her words suddenly registered. True forms. “So I take it you don’t look like this?”
Once again, she shook her head. ”We’re… complex. To comprehend us as we truly are would most likely drive you mad.”
“Impressive,” he remarked, his mouth moving before his brain made the decision.
“Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “This” – she gestured to herself – “is more for your comfort than mine.” She shifted in her seat slightly, exhaling. It was strange, the breaking of that confident, straight-backed posture; for all of a moment, she seemed nearly… human. “I was sent here. I was told I needed to find the book, and that this was the best place to ask.”
“Who told you that?”
“Management,” was her curt reply. Adrian waited, but she didn’t elaborate on that, and somehow, Adrian hadn’t expectedher to. He’d doubted she’d start unravelling the mysteries of the universe for a puny mortal, but part of him had hoped, foolish as it was.
“What’s in the book? Why this book?”
She frowned at him. “Do you catch flies, with a mouth open so often?” When he – unusually – said nothing by way of reply, she said, “Why d’you feel the need to ask so many questions?”
“Don’t you, when you’re given these vague, arbitrary missions?”
“That’s not part of my job description.”
She glared at him. He glared back. Somewhere in the shop, a clock he must have forgotten about ticked.
Several seconds passed before he said, “Why the hell should I help you?”
She pointedly eyed the watch chain leading into his waistcoat pocket. “If I don’t acquire this book, every registered Scholar dies.”
He searched for words and had no luck.
Tick. The clock carried on.
If he’d been in some sort of TV show – or some novel where he was the Chosen One, the only person able to save the day – he’d have jumped at the chance, said something heroic that would probably become a catchphrase later on.
Instead, he blinked a few times, swallowed to try and restore moisture to his suddenly dry mouth, and asked, “Why me?”
The angel cocked her head, her brow crinkling as if he’d said something terribly stupid. “Why not you?” She straightened, nodded towards his laptop. “May I?”
Adrian considered further resistance, but she was an angel, he was tired, and every person who shared his strange little condition was at risk. He stood up, offering her the chair.
She nodded her thanks before starting to type, and Adrian absentmindedly wondered when ageless divine warriors had learned to Google. “This one?”
He leaned over to take a look. Then looked again. Then triple-checked. There were very few details provided on the page, and nothing about the contents of the book was shown. One detail, however, was all too clear.
“Sorry, how much?”
After she’d swept out of the shop with no hint of a goodbye, Adrian shook himself out of his daze, thought of countless Scholars, and ordered the book.
After all, who the hell wouldn’t have?